An excitable rat terrier mutt scuffles underfoot as Sara Smith unlocks the side door to her Hayesville home
and ushers us inside. Built in 1998, the modern structure sits atop a hill that’s been in her family since the 1850s. The government granted part of the land to her ancestors following the passage of the Indian Removal Act, the legislation that forced American Indians off their property. Hayesville, which was occupied almost entirely by Cherokee, was one of the first stops on the Trail of Tears.
Smith would tell you all about it from the stoop of her home, but the day is dreary and wet, and the views — ordinarily magnificent — are nil, the landscape cloaked in fog and mist.
Smith apologizes for the mess in the laundry room access. But other than our muddy footprints, the space is pristine. You might guess that she works in a museum — which she does — just by glancing over the belongings assembled here: an antique sideboard, vintage washboards and implements grouped on the walls, and antique blue-and-white graniteware on a shelf overhead.
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Collecting with purpose
Like many of the collectible items found in the laundry room and every inch of adjacent square footage in Smith’s home, it turns out that the tiny dog underfoot found her, not the other way around. The first time the pup showed up, Smith gave her to a friend. But when she returned two weeks later, making the several-mile trek to Smith’s home a second time, Dutchess got a place to live and a loving caretaker.
So it has been with Smith’s collections, which have evolved organically in her retirement years. Her claim to fame in this mountain community of about 10,000 — fewer than 400 of whom live in the town proper — is her vintage feed sack collection, housed about a mile down the road at the county museum.
There, stacks of cotton bags — colorful and whimsical in their varied designs — stand on display alongside finished feed sack clothes in the museum’s engaging, although somewhat ironic, textile room. Engaging because the cloth that comprises the collection with its flowers, stripes, and, more rarely, character designs, has a shabby chic appeal that begs to be touched. Ironic because rural Hayesville, a border town just miles from the Georgia line, once had a dressmaking factory but never a textile mill, or much industry of any kind.
Smith assembled the feed sack collection specifically for the Clay County Historical and Arts Council about four years ago, donated it to their museum, and never looked back. The same can’t be said for some of the family heirlooms she let go of before she recognized their importance. “I gave away things that I can’t believe now,” Smith says, tilting back her head with regret.
As she guides us politely and quietly through her private collections, it appears she paid her penance for those losses. Family quilts, photographs, and impressive displays of handpainted pottery are everywhere. “A lot of this is just stuff I’ve just rescued over the years,” she says. But there are also a vast number of items she’s sought out — the most impressive of which is a comprehensive assemblage of highly collectible Blue Ridge dinnerware.
Her earliest purchase of the dishes made by Southern Potteries (at one time, the nation’s largest producer of handpainted china) resembled a floral-decorated plate owned by her mother. More than 200 dishes, platters, bowls, and cups later, her cabinets are filled. Unfortunately, her personal collecting philosophy stymies the hunt for any new pieces. “I get no joy out of collecting something and packing it away,” Smith says. “So when I collect, it has to be something I have room for, or I go on to collecting something else.”
So, with her home on the hill officially out of room, she’s embarked on a rescue mission of a new sort: take the town of Hayesville off the shelf and display it for the masses.
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It goes without saying that Smith, like most of the women in her extended family in Hayesville, is a keeper, a saver of things great and small — from worn cowboy hats and faded legal documents to salvaged fireplace mantels and bedroom furniture. Even so, when first presented with the idea of collecting feed sacks, she hesitated.
It sounded dull and not the sort of thing someone would visit a museum to see. Smith recalls that initial reaction while moving around the feed sacks exhibit she helped create for Hayesville’s museum. She smooths and folds the vibrant fabrics all around her.
The Clay County Historical and Arts Council’s Old Jail Museum is housed in the county’s former jail, a concrete block structure that was in use from 1912 to 1972. Today, its steel doors and concrete walls create divisions between various exhibits, many of which Smith helped create. From a pioneer kitchen and an old doctor’s office to a 1916 telephone switchboard and a variety of American-Indian artifacts with reproduction baskets and pottery, the space is a showcase for all things Hayesville. The facility, open to the public during summer and early fall, also offers a fresh exhibit each year, lasting a single season before it cycles out.
About four years ago, a colleague brought up the feed sacks idea to Smith. “I worked with a rather elderly lady,” Smith recalls, “and each year we would talk: ‘What can we put in that room?’ ‘What are we going to do this year?’ And this time she said, ‘I think we should do feed sacks.’”
Smith pictured early iterations of the feed sack — old, white cotton bags with unattractive block lettering on them. “In my mind, I thought, ‘That won’t make much of an exhibit.’” But her colleague, Jane Snowden, began showing her others that were more interesting, more colorful — beautiful, even.
“And then I remembered: When I was growing up in the ’40s and ’50s, we did have feed sack dresses and pajamas,” she says. “I started researching and collecting and got more and more interested in it. Because I could relate to it, it meant more to me.”
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In search of sacks
Before 1850, wooden barrels were used to transport such dry goods as flour, sugar, animal feed, and grain. But as the 20th century approached, mills began packaging these products in cotton sacks, and by the early 1900s, feed sacks were used almost exclusively. Folks in rural areas like Hayesville were more likely than most to have a connection to the cotton bags. As Smith explains in her exhibit, thrifty farm wives across the South first used the white cotton sacks to make everyday items, such as diapers, pajamas, underwear, and hand towels. Women of her grandmother’s era bleached out the bags in an effort to fade the product labels, but shadows of lettering almost always remained. These pieces, imperfect as they were, proved an integral part of the everyday farm life.
With the onset of the Great Depression, families recycled feed sacks into even more common household items, such as sheets, curtains, and pillowcases. And with World War II, cotton shortages struck. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration standardized bag sizes, and people routinely made cotton feed sacks into ladies’ dresses, children’s clothing, toys, bedspreads, and more.
Feed sacks’ popularity continued throughout the 1930s and ’40s, when feed sacks came in a variety of patterns and colors. It took three to four sacks to make a dress; fewer to make curtains; more to make bed sheets. Some companies printed sewing patterns directly on the sacks for things like stuffed animals. And product labels washed out easily, eliminating the need for bleaching.
Smith’s family raised chickens, and chicken feed was their primary source for sacks. Sometimes she would go with her brother to the feed store, although often the bags would arrive at their home by truck, where they sorted through them for preferable fabrics before unloading them to the house.
“I could remember if you thought this was a pretty print, you needed more than one bag,” Smith says. “So when you went to get your feed, you tried to select the bags that were of the same print.”
The more she researched, the more she remembered feed sacks from her childhood. She remembered faded hand towels at her grandmother’s home and pieces in the patchwork quilts created by her mother, the play clothes she wore outside and pajamas she wore to bed. And the more she remembered, the more she collected. For months, she scoured eBay and antique stores and talked to locals about their own salvaged pieces. The collection for the museum grew.
“The more I started researching and collecting, the more and more I got interested in it,” she says. As it turns out, she wasn’t the only one.
When the museum closed for the season and the exhibit rotated out, Smith brought the pieces home, along with several articles of clothing and household pieces that she sewed herself from the vintage fabrics. The museum reopened the next year with a new exhibit, and right away the inquiries began.
“I’d taken it down because we change that area,” Smith says. “But people kept coming back. They were there to see the feed sack exhibit.”
So, she brought the feed sacks back. She made a place for them in a room with an old spinning wheel and loom, and there they’ve remained ever since. Old leaflets featuring apron-wearing housewives and such titles as “Your cotton bags have a future,” are now part of the exhibit. She found a 1953 copy of Progressive Farmer containing a feed bag advertisement and included it in the collection, alongside 1940s-era Simplicity pattern books and other feed sack literature.
“I don’t know of any other place that has something like this,” she says. It seems she’s right. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History houses a feed sack dress from 1959 that won second place in a sewing contest sponsored by the National Cotton Council and the Textile Bag Manufacturers Association. But the collection appears to be largely a novelty.
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Novelty is a good thing for a town chasing the dream of becoming a tourist destination in the region. Just ask Hayesville historian and community activist Rob Tiger, the fourth-generation owner of Chinquapin’s, a soda shop turned clothing and gift store located on Hayesville’s town square. Tiger, one of Smith’s closest allies in the effort to preserve and promote Hayesville, helped write many of the grants that funded the community’s most successful public projects: a new Cherokee outdoor exhibit, an ongoing courthouse restoration, and miles of new biking and hiking trails.
Tiger, who plays banjo and guitar in the folk band Irons in the Fire, likes to reference one of the ensemble’s ballads — “Two Hours from Anywhere” — when talking about Hayesville. Two hours from Asheville; Atlanta, Georgia; and Chattanooga, Tennessee, the town still relies on Atlanta television stations for its “local” news, and it struggles to identify with other North Carolina communities.
“I think what happened here was there was an urgency among a small group of people to address the issue of the town kind of shrinking and possibly losing that last vestige of true history,” Tiger says of Hayesville’s efforts to become a destination town. “It’s a Norman Rockwell-ish sort of feel here. It could be a heck of a lot better, and I think it will be.”
Quintessential, small-town charm is Hayesville’s strongest asset. Although the community offers stunning views of the Tusquittee Mountains and miles of shoreline on Lake Chatuge, it has little to attract young professionals as permanent residents.
Smith knows. Like many who grew up in Hayesville, she left the community to attend college and pursue her livelihood. She was a public school language arts teacher, and, with her late husband, Wayne, spent more than two decades in Asheville and Durham, working and raising their family. When the couple retired in 1998, however, they chose to move back to Hayesville, joining about a half-dozen members of Smith’s family on land handed down through the generations.
And so began their joint effort to preserve and resurrect the historical gems of Smith’s hometown. For his part, Wayne, who passed away in July 2009, became involved in the town’s courthouse restoration project, working alongside Tiger and many others to raise the funds needed to return the 1888 Carpenter Gothic and Italianate Vernacular-style structure to its original beauty. Smith joined the Clay County Historical and Arts Council, which her aunt founded 30 years earlier.
Today, Smith’s museum and volunteer work remains firmly rooted in the past, but she has her sights focused on the future. And she sees good things for Hayesville.
She expresses hope that the National Park Service’s Trail of Tears National Historic Trail will one day add Hayesville as a stop. She touts a new outdoor exhibit behind the Old Jail Museum that involved Cherokee leaders and strengthened the town’s bond to its heritage. In it, meticulously re-created 17th-century Cherokee winter and summer homes showcase Hayesville’s Native American history. And she points out the courthouse project that Wayne was so keen on. A second phase of courthouse restoration includes plans for the building’s interior, making it suitable to house arts and crafts galleries, and creating space for performing arts.
All this activity in Hayesville might make it easy to overlook Smith’s modest feed sack collection. But the exhibit is a gem. And it’s significant enough to make the kind of difference Smith and others have been working so hard for in this rural mountain town.
“As you get older, you appreciate things in your past more,” Smith says. “Especially things you have a connection to.”
Clay County Historical and Arts Council Old Jail Museum
21 Davis Loop, U.S. Highway 64
Hayesville, N.C. 28904